“I now shake the dust from my feet and distance myself from the West,” wrote the young Natalia Goncharova, Russia’s first seriously regarded female painter. Born among the gentry on a rural estate in the heart of her country near Moscow, Goncharova grew up a member of the last generation of noble creative intellectuals; the Revolution of 1917 sent most of the survivors into permanent exile in a West that never seemed quite like home. Reconciling the modernizing influences of Europe with Russia’s distinct native traditions had already become one of their chief philosophical preoccupations in the last decades of the Empire, when the official state culture seemed too cold, foreign, and rational to suit the mystical faith and communitarian society that defined most of its population.

Goncharova’s art arose from the peasant idioms of the countryside surrounding her family’s home, where her ancestors had developed a thriving textile business that, among other things, supplied sails to the Russian navy. Their enterprise’s reliance on local production techniques led the young Natalia to collect traditional prints and cloths and to seek inspiration in them throughout her creative life, which began in earnest with her studies at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where women could take a full course-load but not receive a diploma. Peasant Woman from Tula Province (1910), one of the earliest paintings featured in the Tate Modern’s sprawling exhibition of her work, captures this idiom in its purest form, showing a haggard visage only a generation removed from serfdom peering out from under brightly colored cloth draped over the subject’s traditional embroidered white linen blouse.

Natalia Goncharova, Peasant Woman from Tula Province, 1910, Oil on canvas.

Growing up in turn-of-the-century Moscow, where Goncharova’s family moved when she was eleven, exposed her to the most dynamic years of Russia’s “Silver Age,” an efflorescent period of ambiguity and abstraction named thus to distinguish it from the “Golden Age” of realism, which so memorably marked the middle decades of the nineteenth century and found its highest expression in Tolstoy’s vast novels and Dostoevsky’s stark explorations of souls caught in the clutches of modernity. Silver Age artists like Goncharova wanted something different, and initially operated more in the vein of European Impressionists and post-Impressionists, whose works were gathered in the collections of aspirational Russian merchants determined to use their enormous and often very new wealth to mark their rising status and acculturate their country to the latest trends in art. Ready inspiration came from the publicly accessible galleries of such Maecenases as Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, who collected Matisse, Gauguin, Derain, and other post-Impressionists on a scale unmatched anywhere else in the world. Goncharova’s Peasants Picking Apples (1911) assigns its subjects masks that recall the monumentalism of Gauguin’s tribal figures, which drew upon Polynesian art and ritual, though Goncharova also claimed to have found inspiration in the prehistoric megaliths of Southern Russia. But this nod to primitivism formed only one mode of expression in her oeuvre, which her fellow artist and life partner Mikhail Larionov (they married in 1955) termed “everythingism” since no other word could adequately capture the broad range of her style.

Within only a short time of Goncharova’s emergence among the trendiest circles of the Russian art world, Moscow’s Mikhailov Art Salon mounted a massive eight-hundred-work exhibition of her oeuvre, which included three hundred and fifty paintings. Opening in September 1913, when the artist was thirty-two, it was a smash hit, attracting a huge volume of positive critical comment as well as sales and commissions robust enough to cement her reputation in the artistic firmament. Some works, such as Gardening (1908) and Smoker (1911), also betray the influence of Gauguin, but others, including three important nudes, The Deity of Fertility (1909–10), A Model (Against a Blue Background) (1909–10), and Nude Black Woman (1911), veer toward cubism and bear a closer resemblance to the works of Picasso and Braque from analogous periods.

Natalia Goncharova, The Deity of Fertility, 1909–10, Oil on canvas.

The relatively lax nature of Imperial Russia’s arts censorship (no Title IX Torquemadas there) assured her acquittal, and the incident only added to her fame.

Painting nudes in a modernist idiom was already shocking enough to some people (then as now—in 2017 I was denounced to my university’s Title IX office for sharing a copy of Valentin Serov’s Portrait of Ida Rubinstein as Salome, from 1910, that I had commissioned from the artist’s grandson), but Russian society was especially scandalized that a young noblewoman would indulge in it. Depicting a pagan fertility deity in the nude won Goncharova the distinction of being the first Russian visual artist to be charged with indecency. The relatively lax nature of Imperial Russia’s arts censorship (no Title IX Torquemadas there) assured her acquittal, and the incident only added to her fame. So, too, did her vivid Evangelists (1911), a multicolored quartet of paintings depicting the authors of the Gospels in a combination of Russian Orthodox iconography—a tradition Goncharova greatly respected—and her characteristically stylized approach to the human form. Russia’s religious authorities effected its removal from public display, but it almost immediately figured among her most celebrated works. A nine-panel painting inspired by the Book of Revelations known as Harvest (1911), seven panels of which have survived and were presented here after being gathered from Russian museums in places as remote as Omsk and Kostroma, gestures toward a combination of styles, with the traditional Russian motifs of Peacock and A Prophet complementing the angular modernist physique depicted in Maiden on the Beast (1914).

World War I and the consequent Revolution of 1917 derailed Goncharova’s seemingly unstoppable leap to the top ranks of her country’s creative elite—the conflict broke out during a Parisian exhibition of her and Larionov’s work, and they dutifully made their way home. But she had enough time to experiment with futurist designs that would find their fullest expression in the constructivist school that emerged in the early years of the Soviet Union, when experimentation in the arts was relatively more tolerated than in Stalinist times. The Weaver (Loom+Woman) (1912–13) and Cyclist (1913) capture the dynamism of modern mechanical motion while reducing their human agents to abstractions that seem at one with the machinery. Factory (Futurist) (1912) and Orchids (1913) embrace the minor school of Rayonism, in which abstract beams of color represent the subject’s energy. Goncharova was lauded as a leading exponent of the movement in theoretical writings by Larionov.

Stylistic fusion continued to occur in Goncharova’s work after the Great War. Drawn to the woodblock prints used to create simple religious imagery for Russian peasants, in 1914 Goncharova adapted the form for a series of lithographs collectively titled Mystical Images of War. Some, like St. George and St. Alexander Nevsky, update traditional patriotic messages, while others inject modern sensations. Angels and Aeroplanes, for example, shows heavenly beings wrestling with World War I–era biplanes, while Devoted Christian Troops shows a modern regiment with fixed bayonets marching under the celestial aegis of guardian angels. Such methods forever altered much of the world’s approach to art.

Natalia Goncharova, Set Design for the Backcloth in the Final Scene of The Firebird, 1954. Pencil and watercolor on paper.

Engagement with the war was short-lived, however. Called up for active service, Larionov was wounded and invalided out of combat within only a few weeks. In 1915 he and Goncharova left Russia to tour with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a performing company dedicated to presenting avant-garde music and dance—self-conscious Russian “exoticism” marketed to Western audiences who were beginning to look beyond staid Wagnerism and Italianate fripperies. During her pre-war stay abroad Goncharova worked on costumes for Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Le coq d’or, but it was only after leaving Russia for good that she entered the greatest period of her theatrical career, which endured for most of the rest of her life. With Diaghilev, she wove Old Russian idioms and modernist forms into colorful tapestries for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko and Stravinsky’s ballets Les Noces (not seen in Russia until 2003) and The Firebird, the last in designs that were recreated by the Royal Ballet for a production earlier this year.

Diaghilev’s company was stranded abroad when the war broke out and would never return home. Nor would Goncharova and Larionov, who settled in Paris when Russia descended into the sequel horrors of revolution and civil war and courted audiences in the Old World and, thanks to Goncharova’s “lost generation” American student Sara Murphy, the New. Goncharova died in her first and only Paris apartment in 1962, a revered icon of the Russia her countrymen had lost.

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